The Queen of Not Being Queen
I was working in a frenzy. I had an hour left on my shift before I could leave and meet up with my sister, so we could put on our dancing shoes and be on our way to have a childhood dream come true. Lauryn Hill, a role model, an inspiration, was performing that night and my excitement could not be tamed. But it could be tainted.
As I was leaving work, I told a few coworkers that I would be attending her show and the responses were a crude bag of “She’s insane”, “She’s racist”, “She’ll probably pull a no-show”, and my favorite, “She is a waste of talent”. The general consensus was that Lauryn Hill was a letdown. A powerhouse lyricist, a pioneer for women emcees, a loyalist to her family and background, and an artist with personal standards that mainstream, pop-infused, festival junkies simply do not have time for, had in a nutshell, disappointed her fans too many times.
Disappointment is rooted in love, however. You cannot feel disappointment if you were not expecting or hoping for something amazing, and Hill certainly racked up reasons for people to love her.
Her story is generally known. Born in New Jersey, raised in a musically inclined family, she attended Columbia High School where the humble beginnings of The Fugees occurred. Hill (a freshman), Pras Michel (a senior), and Wyclef Jean (not in school), banded together, and the collaboration flourished. Starting as Tranzlator Crew, they debuted their first album Blunted on Reality, which is still vastly unrecognized and under-appreciated. Hill, who was 19, sounds noticeably more youthful; subsequently angsty, she still spews a lyricism into the mic with the confidence of a veteran. An old soul was a title Hill readily and repeatedly accepted. Again, let’s remember this woman was 19 when she was writing and delivering songs like “Some Seek Stardom”.
“But as I grew, I knew cause the master told me from a baby to a woman from a woman to a baby Life is so short, hardcore becomes hard-corpse Step in a coffin where the money’s no longer the source”
In 1996, The Fugees recorded and released the legendary album The Score, a primary source to why the love, and ensuing disappointment for Miss Hill runs so deep. Rarely in early hip hop was a woman part of a crew. Lauryn was not simply featured on a couple of tracks, she created, produced, and performed equally alongside Wyclef and Pras. She was no mere accessory to the men. The Fugees became a representation of family. Which is why the recurring attempts and rumors of the Fugees getting back together have always been cause for excitement. It’s like an estranged sibling returning home or divorcees falling in love again. As unlikely as it is, the thought of reconciliation is pretty damn sweet.
Accepting reality, lets move on to Hill’s disbandment and success as a solo artist, beginning with the 1998 release of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” This album gave Hill 5 Grammy Awards, acute national recognition, and a few days ago it was announced that it will be added to the Library of Congress. To put it simply, this record was impactful across genres.
I remember sitting in my older sister’s car, fingering through the CD case’s images of this woman: fierce, strong, vulnerable, and calmly beautiful. My sister, driving through our neighborhood, windows down, in the Minnesota summer, singing along to every word. She had religiously practiced each song. Miss Hill was penetrating our world, showing us the layers, personally and socially, of what it meant to be a woman.
“Who you gon’ tell when the repercussions spin Showing off your ass ’cause you’re thinking it’s a trend Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again You know I only say it ’cause I’m truly genuine Don’t be a hardrock when you’re really a gem Babygirl, respect is just a minimum”
Navigating through the male centric genre with Hill was the glass ceiling destroyer MC Lyte, the feminist focus of Queen Latifah, gender role naysayer Missy Elliot, and the multifaceted alternative Jean Grae. Obviously this list is lacking some greats, but that will be for another story. The point is that Hill was not the only female voice emerging from the hip hop scene. But Hill was different. She was and still is to this day, elusively disruptive.
Hear me out. All of the aforementioned women made their own waves. They disrupted expectations and countered stereotypes, but they did so consistently and generally under mainstream approval. Hill, however, made her waves in bursty episodes, typically followed by a public hiatus. Some were good, like the release of her MTV Unplugged album in 2002. Yes, it received polarized responses, but largely her fans were glad to have her lyrical prowess grace their ears again. Other moments were bad, like the recurring fallouts with Pras and Wyclef, or not showing up for shows, or the more recent run in with the IRS, which landed Hill in jail for three months. Public encounters with Hill have always had a tinge of drama to them, but not everyone is made for the spotlight, and Hill is a prime example.
We are so quick to demonize celebrities when they have breakdowns or substance abuse lapses, and then make it all the worse by subjecting their “issues” to our ignorant insights. We forget to look at our own sorry lives and how often we are overwhelmed, lash out, or disappear. Now imagine yourself when that pressure is multiplied, the criticism is constant, and the expectations are endless.
When we, myself included, have criticized artists who have given us so much, with judgments of “She’s crazy, racist, unreliable, a waste of talent”, we have forgotten how to empathize and lost respect for the process that is art.
In 2008 Pras, interviewed by Rolling Stone Magazine said “It’s not that Lauryn is crazy — if it’s not the orthodox way then people tend to say you’re crazy. People said Einstein was crazy. Lauryn had whatever she was dealing with personally, and sometimes people don’t know how to give her a break because she had such an impact.”
In the spring of 2013, prior to Hill’s incarceration for tax evasion, she released a statement on her blog, part of which addressed her disappearance from the public eye.
“I kept my life relatively simple, even after huge successes, but it became increasingly obvious that certain indulgences and privileges were expected to come at the expense of my free soul, free mind, and therefore my health and integrity. So I left a more mainstream and public life, in order to wean both myself, and my family, away from a lifestyle that required distortion and compromise as a means for maintaining it.”
For Hill, being an artist is not something to take lightly. Her personal integrity for her art may come across as selfish or absent minded, but she does not create music for easy-listening public consumption. She has always wanted her music to say something beyond; to mean something beyond. We can’t call her crazy for wanting to uphold that for herself and for hip hop.
It was a steamy June night in downtown Minneapolis. My sister and I waited in a line of anxious fans outside of the spray-painted, silver star-studded First Avenue. I noticed, overhearing conversations and observing interactions, that there were mostly women, and many of them seemed related. Mother-daughters, sisters, aunts and nieces. Once we all hustled inside, waiting for the show to start, there was a bated excitement through the crowd. This was not a group of bandwagon fans. No, these were lifers. We hoped for everything, and prepared for nothing.
But everything was everything. Miss Lauryn Hill was queen that night.
Regardless of whether Hill comes out with a full album, or drops a song or two through the years, like “Black Rage” which she dedicated to Ferguson Missouri, we can be sure that her music will be impassioned and poignant. She’s not a mainstream queen and we can’t expect her to be. She rules her underground realm in her own unique way, answering to herself and her art.